“This is the room we were in, isn’t it?” A woman’s words floated in from the hallway.
“Yes, I must have left it just in here.” Mother, her mother, answered.
All moisture leeched from her mouth, and her hands grew icy even as they started to sweat. What was Mother doing back here?
“It’ll only take a moment to retrieve it.” Mother appeared in the doorway with Mr. Taviston and his wife.
Elizabeth’s body turned cold, but she could only stare at the trio. Mr. Taviston’s eyes locked instantly on her, then ran slowly down her body in that uncomfortably familiar manner.
“Oh, dear, sorry to bother you,” Mrs. Taviston exclaimed, oblivious to the look in her husband’s eyes and the tension radiating between Luke and David. “We’ll only be a moment.”
“I do hope we’re not interrupting.” Mother came farther into the room, her shrewd eyes surveying everything. “Elizabeth, I didn’t expect to see you back here. I just needed to get my hat. I left it before the rally, silly me. But what are you doing in this room, and with two gentlemen, no less?”
“No,” she whispered, more to herself than anything. Beside her, David shifted subtly closer, and she began to shake. Mother and David couldn’t have set her up. They wouldn’t do such a thing. Mother was family, after all. And if David wanted to marry her, he had to care somewhat for her reputation.
But if Mr. and Mrs. Taviston had opened the door to find her in David’s arms with her hair undone, she’d have lost her job and found herself in the middle of a scandal. A scandal that would have only stopped if she married David.
“Elizabeth.” Mother inched closer, plucked a stray hairpin—from where, Elizabeth didn’t know—and held it up, her eyebrows raised.
Heat rushed to her face, so forcefully she’d surely turned the color of a turnip. And all with the head of the school board still watching her.
“I hope you know how this looks, you being alone with two gentlemen.” Mother sniffed.
“Miss Wells was just leaving.” Luke’s words, hard and controlled, permeated the room. “Some of her students came tonight and are waiting to speak with her outside. I believe Miss Wells was concluding a brief conversation with Mr. DeVander. Likely something to do with a business offer she’s turned down.” Luke nodded at her and extended his arm. “Now, Miss Wells, might I escort you to your students?”
She stared at his offered elbow. Two steps and she’d be at his side. But still standing next to David, with her knees trembling and her stomach tying itself in knots, she may as well have been on the opposite side of the Hudson River.
And then he was there, beside her and placing her hand on his arm, the hard muscles beneath his sleeve radiating strength and confidence. “Just hold your head up and leave,” he whispered against her ear. “We’ll settle the rest later.”
So she sucked in a breath, straightened her back and went with him.
* * *
He loved her.
Luke sat in the train, one seat behind the students surrounding Elizabeth, and stared at the back of her auburn tresses and fancy hat. She laughed when her students said something funny, nodded as they asked questions and thanked each of them for going to hear her speak. He didn’t need to see her face to imagine the way her eyes lit when she smiled or sparkled with understanding as she answered questions.
Yep, he loved the woman, all right. And if he had any doubts before, tonight had shot them down. She’d had every excuse not to show up at the town hall and give that speech for her father and DeVander. But what did she do? She didn’t run. Didn’t make excuses. Didn’t gracefully bow out. Nope, she fulfilled the promise she’d made and stood composed before three hundred people. And she hadn’t lied. She hadn’t convinced them to vote for her father or DeVander; she’d convinced them to vote for the children. It would be interesting to know how many of the people present tonight would vote for the opposing candidates a year from now.
Wells and DeVander had followed Elizabeth’s speech by throwing out platitudes, empty thanks and trite sayings about education in New York State. Elizabeth had captivated the crowd’s heart and probably still held it.
And her family had thanked her by setting her up. He clenched his jaw. If he hadn’t brought a group of students tonight and headed off to find her, she’d have been caught alone in that room while DeVander forced her to kiss him.
He’d nearly plowed his fist into DeVander’s stomach when he’d opened the door to find Elizabeth struggling in the rat’s arms, would have broken DeVander’s nose had he not heard the voices in the hall. Even then, he hadn’t realized who the voices belonged to, or what Elizabeth’s mother and DeVander had done.